Vassar’s men’s volleyball team enjoyed one of the most successful seasons of any varsity squad in the college’s history this year, finishing with a 26-7 record and competing in the national championship tournament. But this success story begins four years ago when co-captain Trey Cimorelli ’17 reported for his first practice and saw a team that was, in his words, “pretty bad.”
Cimorelli’s assessment proved to be painfully accurate: the Brewers won just 10 of 31 games that year. Rather than stewing about the poor showing, Cimorelli and some of his young teammates, including Quinn Rutledge ’17 and Christian Lizana ’17, decided to do something about it. “We looked at what the winning teams were doing, and we saw that we were too lackadaisical; we wanted to change that culture,” Lizana says.
Changing the culture meant more time in the weight room, more agility drills with the training staff and more informal time on the court, preparing for the next season. All of this work paid off, and so did the arrival of two highly skilled players in 2015, Matthew Knigge ’18 and Zechariah Lee ’18. The team posted an 18-13 record that year and improved to 24-7 in 2016 when Knigge was named a First Team All-American.
This year, under first-year coach Richard Gary, the Brewers were ranked as high as second in the nation, went undefeated in the highly competitive United Volleyball Conference, and qualified for the NCAA Division III Championships, falling to defending champion and 2017 runner-up SUNY New Paltz in the quarterfinals. Knigge was named a First Team All-American for the second straight year, and Lee was selected to the Second Team. They were joined by Cimorelli and Lizana as All-United Volleyball Conference selections. Vassar finished the season ranked fifth in the country.
Two weeks after the NCAA championships, Cimorelli said the loss still stung, but he’s proud of what the team accomplished during his four years at Vassar. “The pinnacle of the sport at this level is going to the NCAAs, and we achieved that,” he says. “We talked about it at the beginning of the year and kept our focus throughout the season.”
Lizana, who served as a co-captain this year along with Cimorelli, says he and his teammates were aware they didn’t have the depth or the physicality of many of the squads they competed against. “We don’t have a deep roster, and we’re not as big and strong as a lot of other teams, so we had to make up for that with a competitive mindset, with passion and fire,” he says.
Gary, who coached at Wells College in Aurora, NY, before he came to Vassar, says he knew he was inheriting a good team “because they thumped Wells last year.” It didn’t take many practice sessions to confirm his assumption. “I was immediately impressed with their intelligence and fire, and they were receptive to new ideas,” Gary says. “I’m all about mental preparation and toughness and these guys had it.”
With two All-Americans returning and a solid recruiting class arriving in the fall, Gary says he expects great things from next year’s team. But he quickly adds he has to find players to replace the leadership Cimorelli, Lizana, and Rutledge provided. “We won’t be surprising anyone next year – other teams will be ready for us,” he says. “But this year’s experience at the NCAAs will be helpful as we go forward.”
Knigge agreed. “In my final season, I’ll not only be asked to play at a high level but to take a leadership role,” he says. “Those are big shoes to fill.”
Knigge, Cimorelli, and Lizana all praised Athletics Director Michelle Walsh, Strength Coach Cam Williams, and others in the department for their contributions to their Vassar athletics experience. And they said the creation of the Brewers Fund, a fundraising effort that targets the athletics program, was certain to help athletes in the future. “Vassar provided us with all we needed to thrive as student-athletes, and we’re so grateful for that,” Lizana says.